Saturday, October 20, 2012

Are Internships Really Necessary?

I am asked this question time, and time again! Of course, there is not a simple “yes” or “no” answer to it. Here’s why:

Having experience in the field in which you hope to make your career is very important. If you don’t have relevant experience, an internship or a volunteer position will help you fill that gap. If you already have relevant experience, maybe you don’t need an internship – but consider (given the current job market) whether having more experience could in any way be a negative. I don’t think so!  Anything that makes you more competitive is a “plus.”

That said, why limit yourself to a traditional internship? Most online students or career changers are working full-time, have families, responsibilities, and challenges that they feel precludes them from participating in internships of any kind. But let’s explore a few options that might just work for them (or you!):

·         Virtual Internships
·         Volunteer
·         Join Local Environmental Groups
·         Hold Office or Head a Committee

Virtual Internships can work very well for full-time, working adults. How does it work? A virtual internship usually consists of a project with a finite project that can be done remotely. There are many ways to do this, one of which is to find somewhere near where you live that is too far to commute to, or where office hours are typically during the week and not accessible on the weekend (which often is when you have free time). In this case, you can meet with your internship supervisor initially, and then work on your project independently, on your own time. Another option is a true virtual internship situation, where you are far from your sponsor and communicate through email or via telephone. The key to a successful virtual internship is to define the duties or project very clearly. Make sure you build in a series of drafts or partial product submission dates to make sure your work meets the needs of your sponsor – online students know that sometimes what you think is your assignment turns out not to be – best to clarify with questions and rough drafts! 
I have brokered quite a few virtual internships for students and they have worked out well. In one case, a student translated science briefs from English to Spanish. In another, a student performed extensive research on a planned waste-to-energy facility and mailed the results on a usb drive to the sponsor. The possibilities are endless, really!

Volunteering in the traditional sense is another great way to gain field experience. National parks and refuges, zoos, state and local parks, and many other federal and state agencies accept volunteers. In fact, federal agencies count time worked as a volunteer the same as paid time! The challenge, of course, is having the time, but if you take care in selecting a volunteer sponsor, you can find opportunities that do fit in your busy schedule. For example, most national parks employ hundreds of volunteers (thousands nationwide), many of which work on weekends. Many students have found local non-profit organizations for which to volunteer, such as watershed groups, hiking or garden club chapters, and others. Think about calling local federal agencies; EPA, USFWS, USNPS, BLM, and USFS all rely heavily on volunteers to accomplish their mission. If you get a cool reception from an individual, keep trying! I have one student that I helped to connect with a military base in Japan prior to her move there and she worked out a great volunteer situation (she’s now an employee!). Sometimes, the person you call is not the one that needs the help – don’t give up with one phone call! Try to find the “worker bee” folks, where your help is most likely needed.

Another option is to get involved in a local environmental organization. As a member, you gain experience working on projects. For example, many watershed organizations have water sampling volunteers. Learning how to be a “watershed monitor” as an example, translates very well to the position of hydrologic or water resources technician.  In addition to gaining hands-on skills, you also should consider taking on additional responsibility by serving as an officer or on a committee. Think about how many non-profit organizations there are in the environmental field – experience you gain working on committees, special projects, or supervising “cleanup” days transfers readily to paid employment in the non-profit world. Managing volunteers is a critical skill that you can then add to your resume! So are the skills of organizing, planning, and holding special events or activities for group members or the public. Lots of opportunities are out there!

Below are some great places to start your quest for the “perfect” match for volunteer or internship opportunities – good luck!!

Dr. Carol A. Pollio

Search by location, keyword, and narrow to virtual or local volunteer opportunities – a great place to start!

A great source for internships (make sure you have an up-to-date browser!)

Federal government volunteer site:

SCA is a great organization, but expect to take off several months to participate in their intern positions.

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